Good Move for Willow Grove Park

Editorial Staff, March 9, 2014, The Daily News

It isn’t unusual for Washington port districts to operate or pay for recreational facilities. The Port of Longview, for one, has already contributed $840,000 to local boat launches. So the port commission’s preliminary decision last week to take over Willow Grove Park from Cowlitz County isn’t a major new direction for the port — though it may seem like an ill-timed one.


The port commission agreed to an option to buy the park for $10 in December — the same amount the county paid the port for the same land in 1987. The port plans to spend $56,700 to help maintain the park this year, a figure that would likely rise. The county has been spending about $181,000 annually to maintain the park, though there’s a backlog of work needed, including dredging the boat launch, which alone will cost about $120,000.


Cowlitz County has been looking for other agencies to take over its parks because of the county’s severe budget problems. County commissioner Mike Karnofski said that if the port didn’t take over Willow Grove Park, it would remain open as a county park, but with minimal maintenance.


The benefits to the public of the port’s acquisition of the park are considerable. Despite the fact that two major rivers abut Longview and Kelso, there’s relatively little public access to them — because industry came first. If you doubt Willow Grove Park’s value, head there on a nice summer day, when it’s busy with sunbathers, kite-boarders and anglers, both on the shore and launching their boats at the currently silt-laden ramp.


In past years, the port has already contributed $300,000 to the Willow Grove boat ramp, plus $320,000 for the Gerhart Gardens boat ramp and $220,000 for the launch in Castle Rock.


Those contributions (and what it would spend to maintain Willow Grove park in the future) are a tiny percentage of the port’s current operating budget of $34.4 million.


A Washington law allows port districts to provide recreational facilities, and many of them do. The Port of Kalama has a marina and walking trails, and is incorporating a transportation history museum into its new office building, currently under construction. The Port of Woodland is planning to build a boat launch on the Columbia. Wahkiakum Port District No. 2 doesn’t do much other than run Svensen Park on Puget Island and Skamokawa Vista Park. That district has taken over County Line Park, and has already remodeled the restrooms. Many other port districts around the state operate marinas.


If the Port of Longview develops its Barlow Point property, it will have to provide some sort of public riverfront access, according to port CEO Geir-Eilif Kalhagen.


Representatives of the Port of Longview and county started discussing a transfer of Willow Grove park before a couple of controversial developments at the port. Port commissioners in December doubled their tax rate, bringing it back to the previous level, after a recent evaluation of port facilities found a previously undocumented $70 million in needed upgrades to old buildings, equipment and docks. To us, those developments are a result of unsatisfactory leadership by the port commission.


Port officials say the decision to take over Willow Grove Park isn’t a response to unhappiness over the tax increase. “We contribute because we believe this community deserves quality recreational opportunities,” said port spokeswoman Ashley Helenberg (who also countered a rumor that the port wants to develop Willow Grove park as an industrial site).


The port is doing its “due diligence” on the park transfer to make sure there are no hidden liabilities. But if all goes well, the transfer will proceed in December, and hopefully boaters and beachcombers will notice the difference by next summer.


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